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Dissertating While Working

Tips on balancing dissertation work with a full-time job.

May 10, 2015

DeWitt Scott is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at Chicago State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.


Completing a dissertation is always a challenging task, no matter what life circumstances compete for a graduate student’s time and attention. Meeting deadlines, conducting research, and completing revisions require students to give up large parts of their schedules to acquiesce to these demands. Juggling the time and energy needed to be a graduate student can be even trickier if one also has a full-time job. Deadlines seem all the more condensed when a student knows there is a 40-hour period each week in which s/he will not be able to contribute to the completion of a thesis. How does one survive this challenge with a well-developed thesis, satisfactory performance on the job, and his/her sanity intact?

Throughout my three years in graduate school, I have worked in two administrative positions in higher education: one in a teacher prep program at a school of education, the other in administrative affairs at a community college. When I began my thesis seven months ago, I discovered that attending class while working full-time and writing a dissertation while working full-time are two totally different experiences. In the months since, I have discovered a few tips that have been very helpful to me. These suggestions may be encouraging to those who contemplate pursuing a doctorate while holding on to a full-time job.

1) The earlier I start my day, the better my life tends to be: As one would probably assume, sleeping late is absolutely out of the question. The days of hitting the snooze button until the last possible moment, showering in under six minutes, and running out of the door with a piece of toast in my mouth are over. The early morning has become my most valuable work time. Considering that I start work at my administrative job a 9 a.m., it is most beneficial for me to rise by no later than 5:30 a.m. and make productive use of the hour between 6 and 7 a.m. I use this time to work strictly on my dissertation. At this early hour, the demands of work are not yet on my radar, and the peace and stillness of the morning afford me an opportune time and space to think and explore ideas.

2) I do not work on my thesis during my lunchtime: My breaks and lunch at work are used for breaks and lunch. I do not venture into the work of my dissertation during this time. Doing so can dangerously push me in the direction of burnout. I allow break times to be occasions when I unwind for a moment and think about the other parts of my life that matter outside of school and work.

3) Sacrificing at least one entire day of my weekend each week has become a necessity: Choose either Saturday or Sunday as the day that you will commit totally to working on your dissertation. On this day, you will rise early in the morning, go to your designated writing spot or the site where you will conduct research, and focus on your work. I typically choose Saturday as the day that I commit 5+ hours to working on my dissertation. This time can be managed in any way that is comfortable for you, but you must be productive and gain ground on your writing or research.

4) Do not pull all-nighters: I know this sounds odd, considering how compressed the perceived available time to work on my dissertation may be, but it is a very beneficial and crucial tip. I set a hard time at night in which I will find myself lying in bed regardless of what I have or have not accomplished that day. David Levering Lewis wrote about how W.E.B. DuBois, arguably the most productive scholar in American history, never pulled all-nighters. DuBois was in bed every night by 10 p.m. Setting such an inflexible bedtime forces me to make the most of the time I have during the day. It will also increase the likelihood that my mind, body, and spirit are given sufficient time to rejuvenate so that I am awake and alert by 5:30 a.m. the next morning. Admittedly, this is a far cry from the schedule that I kept as an undergrad (I often didn’t leave the house until 10 p.m.!), but it is an effective way to write and work full-time.

These are just a few tips that can be used to manage time. Obviously, these tips must be tweaked if one has children or other pressing personal circumstances. As for those who work full-time, are considering graduate school, and believe that this is a schedule that you could possibly fine-tune to fit your personal habits and lifestyle, pursuing your doctorate could be something you can think about. It requires a great deal of discipline and commitment, but the habits that you develop and the productivity you achieve will be well worth the effort. You will pursue your intellectual passions, still be able to make a living, and keep your sanity in the process.

What tips do you have for students who work full-time while writing a dissertation? Does one have to sacrifice quality in their thesis to complete it while working? How does such a pursuit change if one also has children in addition to a full-time job?


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